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Bridge construction worker Fred Johnson is raising his twelve year old daughter after his wife's death, but when he is killed suddenly in an accident, responsibility falls to his two friends, Buzz Blackwell and Axel Swenson. They bring young Pat to New York, but are given the brush by Fred's well-to-do brother and his socialite wife. They end up making contact with her elderly great-uncle, an unsuccessful vaudevillian, and his wife, who are only too happy to raise the youngster. Unfortunately the money that would make that possible is used by Axel to buy a failing Swedish restaurant drowning in red ink. In order to salvage their investment, Buzz comes up with a novel idea. Written by
IF I HAD MY WAY (Universal, 1940), produced and directed by David Butler, stars Bing Crosby, on loan from Paramount, in an agreeable musical-comedy with a title that can often be confused with his most memorable performance as Father Chuck O'Malley in GOING MY WAY (Paramount, 1944). Crosby doesn't play a priest here, but a good-natured construction worker named "Buzz" Blackwell. His best friend is Fred Johnson (Donald Woods), a fellow construction worker who is a widow caring for his young daughter, Patricia (Gloria Jean). After Fred is killed during a hazardous assignment on one of he nation's highest projects, it is up to Buzz to become guardian to the orphaned girl who has a singing voice like an angel. Assisted by Axel Svenson (El Brendel) and his pet squirrel, Buzz learns that Patricia has relatives living in Manhattan and decides to take her over to her rich uncle living at 940 East 56th Street. However, Jarvis B. Johnson (Allyn Joslyn) and his attractive wife, Brenda (Claire Dodd) prove to be nothing but snobs, with Jarvis wanting nothing to do with his brother (because he had married an actress), nor his child. The next best thing is for Buzz to locate Patricia's great uncle, Joe Johnson (Charles Winninger), who lives on the west side of Manhattan. Both he and his wife, Marian (Nana Bryant), simple heart-warming people, welcome the child, whom they haven't seen since she was an infant, and gladly take her in. After Axel uses up all their money in a small neighborhood restaurant, it is up to Buzz to save the day once more, this time by transforming the place into a profitable nightclub, with Joe Johnson, a former vaudevillian, to help out with the entertainment.
New songs by Johnny Burke and James V. Monaco include: "Meet the Sun Half Way," "I Haven't the Time to Be a Millionaire" (sung by Bing Crosby and Gloria Jean); "Little Gray Home of the West" (Gloria Jean); "Pessimistic Character" (Crosby and cast members); "If I Had My Way" (Crosby to Jean); "Ida" (sung by Eddie Leonard in black-face, and Six Hits and a Miss); "Rings on My Fingers" (sung by Blanche Ring); "April Played the Fiddle" and "Meet the Sun Half Way" (reprise/finale, with Crosby and Jean). Of the songs presented, "I Haven't Time to Be a Millionaire" comes off best. The title tune, slow in tempo, is fine but forgettable.
The supporting players include Moroni Olson (John Blair, the bank president); Kathryn Adams (Miss Corbett); Emory Parnell (Gustave Svenson); Barnett Parker (The Floorwalker); and vaudeville acts (which were usually cut from most TV prints) with guest stars Blanche Ring, Trixie Friganza, Paul Gordon (the cyclist) Grace LaRue and Julian Eltinge.
Not as famous as the other Bing Crosby musicals of the day, IF I HAD MY WAY certainly is one of those "feel good" movies helped along by the presence of the young and likable Gloria Jean, who was by then age 11 or 12. Making her movie debut in THE UNDER PUP (1939), Jean became Universal's answer to becoming a junior Deanna Durbin. Like Durbin, Jean had a fine singing voice, but unlike Durbin, the duration of her films for Universal consisted mainly of quickly produced "B" musicals. S She never rose above the ranks to appearing in a major "A" product, unless supporting a major star. While Jean appeared in a handful of lightweight films for Universal from 1939 to 1945, almost all of them are ignored and forgotten today, with the exception of the rarely seen "film noir" DESTINY (1944), where she played a blind girl, a role she is best remembered, along with NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941), playing the niece to W.C. Fields. If it weren't for this Fields comedy, which continues to be in circulation today, Gloria Jean would be one of those forgotten names known solely by film historians.
IF I HAD MY WAY, which runs at 94 minutes, is predictable yet enjoyable, not unlike Crosby's other musicals he was making over at Paramount. It may never develop into a sort-after classic, in spite of its current availability on DVD, but it's a worthy discovery from Hollywood's by-gone era. (***)
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